28 Days Later Poster with Red Eyes

Late to the Party: 28 Days Later

Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. This week: the 2002 “zombie” movie that revitalised the genre.

I have something of a soft-spot for zombie media. I think that The Last of Us and The Walking Dead: Season One rank as some of the most engaging and emotional video games I have ever played. So it is a bit odd that it took me until 2022, twenty years after the film was initially released, to sit down and actually watch 28 Days Later.

Technically, 28 Days Later isn’t about a zombie apocalypse – the “rage” virus that is accidentally released from a laboratory at the start of the movie doesn’t kill its host. The virus does however strip you of your reasoning, your eloquence, your humanity. It turns human beings into violent beasts, and that terrifying prospect is at the heart of every piece of zombie fiction.

Strictly speaking, this guy ain’t a zombie. Does it really matter?

The main character in the film is Jim, a bicycle courier from Deptford, London.1 Jim fell into a coma shortly before the “rage” virus was unleashed, only waking up in hospital after society has collapsed. Naked and alone, he walks through the abandoned city, unsure of what has happened.

Jim on Westminster Bridge

This is a very famous sequence that has been homaged and referenced across all forms of media, but the main thing that struck me while watching it was how much London has changed. I visit the city regularly – I know what these landmarks look like. It struck me how the War on Terror, the housing bubble and the digital revolution has changed London’s geography and how humans interact with it. I wasn’t nostalgia I was feeling, more a mournful curiosity.

Jim eventually runs into two survivors, Mark and Selena, who are hiding in a newsagents.2 I have to be honest here – I don’t find either of them that compelling. Mark talks about how he was in a crowd at Paddington Station, how the infected attacked and he had to clamber over trampled corpses in order to escape. Maybe it was the direction or the editing or the way Noah was shot but I just didn’t buy it at all.

Selena doesn’t fare much better. I appreciate that they cast a woman of colour as the deuteragonist of the story, but her character arc felt stale. At the start of the movie, Selena mocks Jim for his naivety:

“Got a plan yet, Jim? You want us to find a cure and save the world? Or fall in love and fuck? Plans are pointless. Staying alive is as good as it gets”

A few days later, Selena has fallen in love with Jim for no real reason. She also becomes less capable as the film goes on, turning into more of a “damsel in distress” that Jim can rescue at the climax of the movie.

What happened to the Selena who killed an infected Mark because she had to?

I understand what Selena’s arc is trying to convey. One of the major themes of the movie is that isolation harms a person’s psyche – Selena needs to care about other people to hold onto her humanity throughout the apocalypse. But did it need to be a romantic connection? The most heart-breaking scene in the film is when Jim returns to his parents’ house and finds that they died by suicide rather than live in a post-outbreak world. Murphy’s performance as he breaks down in tears is genuinely touching, and feels much more believable than his “romance” with Selena.

More generally, I thought that the script for 28 Days Later was a little sloppy. It was written by Alex Garland, who would go on to write Dredd, Ex Machina and Men.3 He is a talented and accomplished man but I could tell that this script was from early in his career. Garland and director Danny Boyle want the “zombies” to be representative of humanity’s rage and paranoia, but the plot isn’t structured in a way that allows that theme to be explored.4

Perhaps the problem is that they were trying to combine two contradictory stories – The Day of the Triffids and Dawn of the Dead. The former is a story of mankind’s hubris, how we created and cultivated an organism that eventually supplanted us. The latter is a satire of consumerism, where zombie and human alike find comfort in a shopping mall. These stories overlap a little bit – “greed robs us of our humanity” – but the monsters don’t fulfill the same plot function. Zombies can represent a hostile alien force or they can reflect our behaviour – they can’t do both.

This dissonance comes to a head in the final set-piece of the film, where Jim attacks and murders some British soliders who are trying to kill him. The cinematography is very blunt – Jim is winning the fight because he is acting like a “zombie”. He is aggressive, covered in blood, and has no qualms about gouging somebody’s eyes out.

The hunters have become the hunted…

The logical way to end this sequence (if the “zombies” are indeed a metaphor for rage and paranoia) is for Garland and Boyle to kill Jim. He beat the soliders, but at the cost of his own humanity. And as a matter of fact, that is what was originally going to happen. Jim’s story would come full-circle, dying on a hospital bed while Selena tried to save him from a gunshot wound. Unfortunately, this ending was changed after test audiences found it too bleak, and it really harms the message of the film.

There is one final theme I want to highlight, one that Garland would explore further in Ex Machina: patriarchy. The word literally means “rule of the father” and a running subplot of the movie is Jim’s attempt to find a surrogate dad after losing his own. After Mark is killed, Jim and Selena come across Frank and his daughter Hannah at a nearby tower block.5 Frank represents the “good” father – welcoming, resourceful, caring towards his daughter.

Frank and Hannah in their London flat

Frank suggests that the four of them travel to a military blockade north-east of Manchester, as he has picked up a radio broadcast promising “the answer to infection“. Unfortunately, Frank accidentally becomes infected when they reach the blockade and soldiers shoot him. They are led by Major Henry West, who represents the “bad” father.6

The soldiers that West commands are portrayed by actors in their 20s, a deliberate casting choice to make them seem like teenagers. They do doughnuts in Frank’s taxi; a soldier wears a silly pink apron while cooking expired eggs; they bang their cutlery on the table while waiting for dinner. This behaviour alone would demonstrate that West is a bad father, but Garland goes further and has West expound his own theory of patriarchy:

T/W for sexual violence AND CHILD ABUSE – skip the next 3 paragraphs

“Eight days ago I found Jones with his gun in this mouth. He said he was going to kill himself because there was no future. What could I say to him? We kill all the infected or wait until they starve to death. And then what? …
I moved us from the blockade, I set the radio broadcasting, and I promised them women. Because women mean children. And children mean a future.”

First of all, props to Garland and Boyle for having a soldier say this – far too many films treat the military as unquestionable good guys who will always do the right thing. Second, West has been going on and on about “civilisation” and “normality” – this is what he thinks those words mean. He sees rape culture as a useful tool worth preserving. West doesn’t restrain his men or even order them to spare Hannah, instead telling Selena and the young girl to put on evening dresses so they will be more “presentable“, like dolls to be played with.

You could make an entire movie out of this third act (which is arguably what Garland did when he made Ex Machina). How one of the soldiers compares his genitals to Selena’s machete. How Selena offers valium to Hannah to help her cope with sexual assault. How Jones, the designated cook, is treated as effeminate by the other soldiers. And in the superior alternative ending, Selena jokingly tells a chicken that “we’re going to have to fertilize you – we need offspring“, using humour to cope with her memories but also alluding to how patriarchy treats female bodies as a commodity to exploit.7

Notice the statue of Laocoön and His Sons behind West, representing betrayal and agony without redemption

Thankfully, Jim defeats the soldiers before they can attack Hannah & Selena and all three of them escape from Manchester. They find refuge in a remote cottage, forming a new family unit with Jim as the father figure, and we end with the characters signaling to a European fighter jet for help. As I’ve said already, I think this ending is too optimistic and the idea that Britain has been quarantined by the rest of the world is introduced far too late in the narrative to be believable.

So, is 28 Days Later worth revisiting? I’m honestly not sure. The performances and cinematography are quite good but I don’t think time has been kind to the movie. It’s the 20th anniversary of the film and nobody seems to care. Garland has gone on to write better scripts that explore patriarchy in greater depth. And speaking from experience, if British people reference a dystopian movie in conversation, they are most likely to talk about Children of Men.

Britain will protect you from those nasty refugees! Stiff upper lip now!

I don’t know, maybe there are things far more frightening than a zombie apocalypse for us to worry about now…

What are your thoughts on 28 Days Later? Did I miss anything important? Let me know in the comments and if you want to do your own Late to the Party entry, click on this link and sign up.

Sources and further reading

28 Days Later: Revisiting the Film in the Age of Rage

Blog post on Selena’s Character Arc

Den of Geek article on Rape Culture and 28 Days Later

Dread Central article on Gender and Father Figures in 28 Days Later

Late to the Party: The Walking Dead

The YouTube channel And He And I also has an excellent review that covers the cinematography and soundtrack of the movie: